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Indonesia summons envoy from Australia over asylum

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JAKARTA, Mar 24: Indonesia said today (Mar 24, 2006) it was summoning back its ambassador from Australia after Canberra defied Jakarta's wishes and gave protection visas to 42 Papuan asylum seekers, threatening to cool ties between the Pacific neighbours.

Australia had tried to reassure Indonesia earlier today that it continued to oppose independence for troubled Papua province despite issuing the visas to the group, who arrived at Cape York, Australia's most northerly point, in January.

The Papuans accuse the Indonesian military of conducting genocide in their homeland.

Indonesia said it ''deeply deplored'' Australia's decision, adding that it was surprised and disappointed.

Asked when Indonesia's ambassador would leave Canberra for consultations in Jakarta, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told reporters: ''As soon as a plane can take him home.'' Chief security minister Widodo Adi Sutjipto said: ''The Australian government's policy to allow a temporary stay was a counter-productive policy'' that ''did not consider the feelings and sensitivities of the Indonesian people''.

Calling the ambassador home ''represents a worsening of relations. It is a strong form of protest'', RK Sembiring Meliala, a member of Indonesia's parliament, told Reuters.

''There is no reason for (Canberra) to grant asylum. These are ordinary citizens, not fugitives,'' he said.

PREVIOUS DIFFERENCES

Australia and Indonesia have had other differences. The Australian government and groups within the country have sometimes criticised Indonesia's performance on human rights, while Indonesia has at times seen Australia as self-righteous and a knee-jerk ally of the United States.

Relations hit a low in 1999 when Australia led a UN force into East Timor to stem violence after the territory voted to break away from Indonesia.

But ties had warmed in recent years, especially as the two cooperated on anti-terrorism efforts following an October 2002 bombing attack in Bali that killed 202 people, many of them Australians.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said today he had recently spoken to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to explain Canberra's practice of treating asylum claims independently of foreign policy concerns.

''We're certainly not in any way changing our position on the recognition of West Papua as part of the Republic of Indonesia. We retain that view very strongly that West Papua must remain as part of Indonesia,'' Downer told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

But Desra Percaya, an Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Elshinta news radio in Jakarta that the move could help boost groups in Australia who support Papuan independence.

''We do not see the Australian government taking any action towards them,'' he said.

A Western diplomatic observer in Jakarta told Reuters: ''It's unfortunate that the Indonesians don't realise that those kinds of decisions are independent of foreign policy'', adding that Indonesia's government ''has to be seen as strong on sovereignty-related issues relative to Papua''. Still, the countries ''have so many broad areas of cooperation that this will just be one of those bumps in the road that will eventually soften itself out,'' said the observer, who declined to be identified.

In Canberra, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the ambassador's recall was ''a matter for the Indonesian government''.

Foreign Minister Downer had said earlier he expected protests in Indonesia, but the close cooperation between the two countries would continue. He said he hoped Indonesia would understand Australia's position.

Papuan independence activists have campaigned for more than 30 years to break away from Indonesia, while a low-level armed rebellion has also simmered. Human rights groups accuse the Indonesian military of widespread abuses there.

Indonesian authorities deny abuses and say recent regional elections in Papua and companion province West Irian Jaya, which shares Indonesia's half of the island of New Guinea, were relatively smooth and peaceful.

REUTERS

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